St John is so short of voluntary crew in Westport it may not be able to provide an ambulance for at least an hour in a life-threatening emergency.

St John had only about half the local number of volunteers it needed to ensure a frontline ambulance crew, said district operations manager James McMeekin.

If it had no Westport crew available, an ambulance might have to come from Reefton 80km away, or Greymouth or Karamea, both 100km away.

That's what happened last week when a Westport family rang 111 for an ambulance. They took their elderly relative to Buller Hospital themselves because they were told an ambulance would have to come from Karamea, 90 minutes away.


St John said last week it was "unusually" unable to provide a Westport ambulance because it had no volunteer crew available. It said the call was non-life threatening and did not qualify as an emergency and it sent a "nearby ambulance that was able to respond within the appropriate time".

The Karamea ambulance was stood down when the patient's family provided their own transport.

Mr McMeekin confirmed yesterday that even if a life was at risk, the crew shortage could prevent St John providing an ambulance in Westport for at least an hour.

Responding to written questions he said: "The nearest available ambulance would be dispatched, which could come from Karamea but also Reefton, Murchison or Greymouth.

"A primary response in a medical emergency responder will be sent, if they are available; in Westport this resource is from Buller Health."

Mr McMeekin said the rescue helicopter from Greymouth or Nelson could also be sent, if weather conditions allowed.

The helicopter is at least 25 minutes away.

He said St John could also contact off-duty paid staff to respond. This could include the locally based manager in a response-capable car. However, St John must take care to comply with legislation around work hours and driving hours.

St John currently had 22 volunteers in Westport, he said.

"Our ideal level would be twice that to sufficiently provide the 252 hours required each week to work with the paid ambulance officers currently based in Westport."

Mr McMeekin said most St John volunteers had paid jobs. St John realised their availability might change at different times of the year.

"Six volunteers have stepped out of the team over the last six months for reasons such as relocation, workload demands and family to name a few.

"We require in excess of 40 frontline volunteers to populate a roster that works with the paid officer during the day and two volunteers for the evening.

"Many volunteers will do in excess of their mandatory two shifts per month to assist crewing the ambulance but this must also be in support of their primary income job and welfare."

Westport News understands it's becoming increasingly common for St John to be unable to provide an ambulance for patient transfers from Buller Hospital to Grey Base Hospital, because it can't muster a crew. It's understood the NZCC Rescue Helicopter is being called more often as a result.

Mr McMeekin didn't provide an answer when asked how often in the past six months St John had been unable to fulfil an ambulance request for a patient transfer from Buller to Grey.

He said requests from the hospitals could range from immediate dispatch of a helicopter or emergency ambulance for serious cases, to an ambulance for more routine cases.

"With sufficient notification from the hospitals, this additional service will be dispatched based on local volunteer crew availability as a preference otherwise the next closest and appropriate resource will be dispatched.

"Any expected delays are communicated to the requesting hospital with a final decision on how they would like to transfer the patient remaining with them.

"We work closely with our colleagues at the West Coast District Health Board (DHB) to achieve the best, most appropriate care for our patients."

The DHB was also unable to tell Westport News how often in the past six months St John had been unable to staff an ambulance for patient transfers. DHB Buller manager Kathleen Gavigan said the DHB documented ambulance requests and the means of transfer used, but did not systematically collect information on the lack of availability of ambulances.

"This information may be available from St John."

The DHB offered to provide a list of ambulance requests, but said it would take some time to compile.

- Westport News